On the outskirts of a Montana frontier town, a fugitive risks his life to protect a mother and her son
The miners, innocents all, didn't recognize the beast that stalked in their midst until an early blizzard stripped them of shelter and food. They huddled in one tent, listening to the winter winds sing of their deaths. Hunger stalked these men, felling them one by one.
Miles Standish is on the run, an innocent man accused of unspeakable crimes. The Moose Creek Cannibal, as he is known, seeks refuge in an isolated cabin near the hardscrabble town of Last Chance, Montana. Hoping to lie low, he is pulled instead into the lives of his neighbors, Iona and her son Arch. He soon learns that they too are victims of those eager to believe lies rather than seek the truth.
Meanwhile, Samuel Bodner, the only other person to survive the freezing hell at the Moose Creek Mine, relentlessly stalks the Moose Creek Cannibal. The pursuit has so dominated Miles's every waking moment that he sometimes wonders if Bodner's gruesome allegations might actually be true. As he comes to care deeply for Iona and Arch, Miles must decide if he is willing to sacrifice his freedom in order to save his friends from the evil visited on them.
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About the Author
Gary D. Svee grew up along the banks of the Yellowstone, Stillwater, and Rosebud Rivers in Montana. His novels include Spirit Wolf, Showdown at Buffalo Jump, The Peacemaker's Vengeance, and the Spur Award winner Sanctuary. Svee lives in Billings, Montana.
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By Gary D. Svee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Gary D. Svee
All rights reserved.
Cold, a bitter cold that steals the ability to move, to think. Miles Standish's legs plowed furrows through snow shoulder high to the mare. He might fall into the snow and drown. Sally was a good horse, as good as any Standish had known. She would wait, listening until the muffled sobs of a drowning man ceased, and then she would move down the mountain to find a warmer place.
Sally stopped, jolting Standish from his reverie. He touched his heels to the horse's belly, but she wouldn't move. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind, trying to see what Sally saw. Nothing. Maybe that was it. Maybe nothing lay ahead. He had been moving down a ridge where the wind blew most of the snow away. Maybe there was a pocket of deep snow ahead where both he and Sally would drown.
The wind howled victory. Its prey was trapped on the ridge top. Death lay in every direction. Maybe he would die here. Standish was surprised at how little he cared. He loosened Sally's reins. Maybe she could pick a trail. Maybe she could carry him off this damnable mountain. He touched his heels to the horse's belly, and she whickered. She was accustomed to having him show her the way. She hesitated for a moment, and then turned.
Standish ducked his head. The wind was blowing snow down his neck. Each flake took a bite from his flesh. His body was shivering, and Standish knew he was in trouble. Sally turned again, opening Standish's left side to the wind. He was being turned on old man Frost's spit. He cocked his head, trying to hide behind the brim of his hat.
Even under the snow, Standish could hear the click of his horse's hooves on the rocks below. They were traversing the ridge's knife-edge here. If she slipped either way.... Standish shook his head. No reason to worry about things he couldn't change. He tried to remember where he had heard that, but his thoughts were wading through honey, very, very cold honey.
Sally lunged through the snow toward a knob on the ridge. The wind had swept the knob nearly free of snow. Sally dropped her head, drawing great drafts of icy air into her lungs. Standish reached out stiffly and patted her neck. "Good girl, Sally. We'll rest a minute, and then, we'll get down this damn mountain."
Sitting was worse than moving. Running from this killing wind offered hope. Sitting stole that hope. Standish lost himself for a moment, disappearing into the cold, welcoming it. Sally snatched at a patch of dried grass and pulled him back to consciousness.
"No time for that now," Standish said. "Not much time left until dark. We get caught up here tonight...." Standish let the words drift into silence.
The other side of the knoll was steep, steep on a warm summer day when a horse's hooves could find purchase. Now it seemed almost vertical, and only the resistance of the snow kept the horse from falling head over heels. Down the mountain the two went, lunging through snowdrifts, hell bent for nowhere.
Miles Standish followed a faint wagon track deep into the trees. The trail hadn't been used that much, only enough to keep the two tracks clear of grass. He had a wild animal's curiosity about his surroundings. That had saved his life more than once. He sensed the opening in the trees before he saw it. He stopped and listened. No thump of axes or hammers. No rasping of a saw biting into wood.
Standish urged Sally forward. He let her walk about twenty feet and stopped her again. No sounds. No sounds but the chatter of a squirrel: Beware a two-legged stalks the forest. Ten more steps and Standish could see a clearing. Someone had carved a hole in the forest and built a cabin from the shards.
No smoke. That was a good sign. No smoke, no occupant. Even on this sundrenched day, smoke should be coming from the stove. The bite of winter had left these lower elevations, but it was too early in the spring for the cold to have left the cabin. Winter hangs in the bones of all Montana creatures. Standish pulled his arms tightly to his chest. He wondered if the bite of winter would ever leave his bones.
Another good sign. The cabin door hung open. No one would leave the door like that, unless.... Standish didn't like to think about that. He didn't want to walk into this cabin, and find....
"Hello, the camp!"
The squirrel's chattering took on a stridency. A two-legged is in the forest, and he is growling. Standish slipped off Sally, and stepped into the trees at the side of the wagon trail. The forest floor was littered with pine needles as old as the mountain he had descended three days ago. They were wet still with snow melt and spring rains, soft as the carpet in the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton. He walked carefully, watching where he placed each foot, stopping after every step to look and listen. Nothing, nothing but the sound of the squirrel and the cawing of a crow in the distance.
Standish slipped behind the cabin. No sounds issued from the building. He eased around to the window he had seen from the trail, but it was too dusty to see inside. He walked to the front of the cabin and knocked on the door. Nothing. No one was there. Standish sensed that the cabin had been vacant for some time, a feeling enhanced by a double-bitted axe rusting in a splitting stump by the door.
Standish knocked again, waiting for the answer he knew wouldn't come. He opened the door, a shaft of light following him into the cabin. He stood blinking, willing his eyes to probe the darkness around him.
A table, not much larger than the plate, cup and silverware it bore, sheltered a simple chair from the light. A blue-enamel basin that served for shaving and washing hands and dishes hung on a nail protruding from a log wall.
The room was heavy with the scent of wood smoke shaded by a fainter scent of tobacco. Standish ran his tongue across the roof of his mouth. He had stopped smoking simply because tobacco was rare in the high country, and the scent might kill him. He didn't want to go through the throes of quitting again, still. The thought was interrupted by another, subtler scent. Standish's lip curled. He couldn't get shut of the smell of death. It followed him wherever he went.
A lantern glinted by the window. He shook it, and kerosene sloshed in the tank. He scratched a match against the wall and touched it to the wick. A soft yellow light crept into the room. Not much light, but more than dust allowed through the windows.
The bed crouched against the far wall. Standish hesitated. He scratched his nose, and thought about where he would put the bed if the cabin were his. It wouldn't be against the wall. He would bring it nearer to the stove so that he could feel its warmth into the night.
Standish glanced at the bed again. He didn't like this, but it had to be done. He took a deep breath and walked into the bed's cloaking shadow. The covers were twisted with the throes of a dying man. The cabin was too plain to have been home to anyone but a man. A pair of boots lay on the floor beside the bed, as well as a pile of clothing.
Standish cocked his head. The boots were odd. They weren't crafted for riding horses or following a plow. The leather was too fine for that. Fine dress boots in a sparse cabin deep in the woods? A tiny table beside the bed offered some clues. There was a Bible there, and another book. Standish picked up the Bible. It was printed in a language he didn't understand. Standish shook his head. Hell, he had a hard time understanding Bibles printed in English. He left the other book lying on the table. He could look at that later. He returned his attention to the bed. The man hadn't lain their long. Someone had found him before he rotted. Either someone lived near the cabin, or the owner had a visitor. Standish didn't like either possibility.
He stepped to the door, peering into the shadows of the surrounding pine. A shiver crawled up his back. Wouldn't be good to be caught in this cabin. One man could cover the door with a rifle. Step out and be shot. Stay and be hanged. Helluva choice.
Standish sighed. Wouldn't be a bad place to die. Sally was snatching at the grass in the clearing. He whistled to her, and her head jerked up, but she didn't come. Fresh spring grass was not often on her menu. Standish whistled again, and Sally yielded, trotting over.
"Good girl," he said, stroking her neck. "I guess I haven't been very good to you, have I?"
"That's what I thought," Standish said. He slipped the bridle off, and loosened the cinch on the saddle. "You have a good time, Sally, while I poke around."
Standish passed the outhouse in the trees behind the cabin. It appeared to be solidly built, but it could use some quicklime. A small log barn drew his attention. Two windows graced the walls he could see. The shake roof appeared almost new.
The barn door was rough dimension lumber two inches thick held in place by huge iron hinges. A bear after a horse would do some spitting and cussing before it got through that door.
The door opened without a sound, the hinges well oiled. Standish shook his head. This place was well kempt. The owner took care of his things. That was even more apparent when the light spilled into the barn. A light spring wagon, bright white with red trim. Standish ran his hand across the wagon box. Tight. Must be almost new. He leaned over and checked the wagon's hubs. Well greased. The man knew how to take care of his things. Two stalls marked one wall. One was lined with grass hay. On the opposite side was the man's shop. His tools hung from the walls, oiled and shining and ready for the next day's work. A small forge and a pile of coal slouched in the center of the partition. Next to the workshop was a covered bin. Oats. Where in the hell did the man get oats? Railroad. The Great Northern must be somewhere near here. The floor was solid four-inch planks. Hell the railroad could lay a track across this floor.
Standish climbed a ladder nailed into one wall. Good news—no great news. The man and his horse had come through the winter with a good supply of hay. The winters here must be mild compared to winter in Montana mountains. Standish grinned. Compared to winter in Montana mountains nearly anything was mild. He descended the ladder and stepped outside into the sunshine, shutting the door behind him with the care of a proprietor. Sally had drifted off. She must have found some water. He turned back to the cabin. No well. If he had this place, he would have dug a well. Maybe not. The owner took care of the place. If there was no well, there must be a reason for it.
Sally nickered, her good-grass-and-water-and-sunshine nicker. Standish walked toward the sound. A corridor had been cut through the trees, the stumps three or four years old. At the end of the corridor was a meadow of five or six acres. The grass was rich and green and tall. It would carry two horses, maybe three, and a full loft of hay to boot. That's how nice this meadow was.
The meadow sloped up the shoulder of the mountain. Flashes of yellow marked the upper reaches, near the surrounding trees. Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Standish guessed. The root had killed the ache in Standish's belly more than once, but it had no more taste than sawdust.
Sally looked up as he stepped into the meadow and then went back to her feast. Standish knelt at the creek, making a cup of his hands. The water was cold and sweet as a dish of ice cream. He stood, walking upstream. The entire meadow was fenced with cut and trimmed lodge pole pine nailed to living trees.
A trail followed the creek into the trees, and Standish followed it. The sun played through the branches of the trees creating a forest mottled with sun and shadow. The trail was old, but not extensively used. A game trail, he thought, probably for elk coming down from the mountain.
A hundred yards up the trail, he broke into a vast stand of Quaking Aspen. A narrower, steeper meadow followed the creek up the mountain. The creek stepped down the mountain over a series of beaver ponds set amid a glorious display of mountain flowers. As Standish approached the first pond, a cutthroat trout rose as though to free itself forever from its ethereal bonds. The trout glinted silver, red and green, and Standish stopped awestruck. Two pounds, maybe more. Standish was pulled back to his youth, stalking rainbow trout on the Cold River of northern Maine.
As he watched, an aspen at the top of the meadow crashed to the ground. Standish dropped and rolled behind a boulder. He lay there without moving for two or three minutes; it seemed more like an hour. The house wasn't abandoned. The owner was simply cutting trees, perhaps to fence this meadow, too.
Maybe he hadn't seen Standish. Maybe Standish could crab from boulder to boulder back to the trees. He could make his way through the trees without anyone seeing him. He had done that enough times to be sure of it. He and Sally could be on their way before the owner realized they had been there.
First, Standish had to know what the man was doing, whether he had a rifle in his hands or an axe. He slipped off his hat and leaned around the rock; his life hanging on seeing and not being seen. Nothing. No, wait. There! The man was moving. He was crouched low to the ground. He must be new to this game, anyone with a rifle could....
Standish rolled over on his back, his head propped on the rock, great peals of his laughter filling the meadow and bouncing off the surrounding trees. He laughed until tears stained his cheeks.
A beaver! A beaver had toppled the aspen, and now he was scurrying around it, doing what beavers do after they drop a tree. Another spasm of laughter broke into the meadow, and the beaver sat up on its hind legs, peering nearsightedly into the meadow. What was that strange sound? What creature made such a silly sound.
Standish glanced about the meadow. He could see now the stumps of other trees generations of beaver had cut to create this meadow. Still the effort moved on. More beaver building more dams as the meadow marched up the creek.
His eye skipped across the meadow and abruptly stopped. A straight line had been cut into the forest. What could that be? If the line were continued, it would end in that deep pool. Revelation and then disbelief spread across Standish's face. He walked to the pool, his eyes searching the ground for clues. There! The ground had been disturbed. Grass was filling in, but the disturbance was still obvious. He followed the line. Occasionally, he found boulders with drill marks where the owner blasted his way through the rock. The line led to the tree line just above the cabin and trees. It forked there, with one line leading to the cabin, and the other to the barn.
Standish walked to the barn, feeling the sun on his face, feeling the love the owner had showered on his place. Digging that trench must have been a Herculean task. The rocks had faced the challenges of rock and ice and water for eons. They wouldn't move easily from their beds.
Standish opened the door to the barn and stepped in, reckoning where the line would run under the wall. There it was by the forge, a post with a pipe running up one side. At the top was a faucet. He reached over and opened the valve. Clear, clean, cold water spilled out. Standish shook his head and grinned.
He walked to the door and leaned out. "Sally, it's your good day. You'll sleep in a stall tonight with grass hay for a bed. I'll sleep with a roof over my head. This is a celebration, girl."
Sally whickered and went back to the glorious green grass she was eating.
Standish walked toward the cabin putting together a list of tasks. He would drag the bed and mattress and covers outside. He couldn't sleep with the smell of death so close to him, and he was too accustomed to sleeping on the ground to sleep in a bed anyway.
He would look for a broom and sweep the dust out. Then he would build a nest on the floor. Tonight while the stove was still putting out some heat, he would settle into that nest and try to decipher that book on the nightstand.
"A glorious day," Standish yelled, and Sally whickered in agreement.
Miles Standish crossed his legs on the spring wagon seat and stared down at the town. He would strike up a cigarette now, if he hadn't quit smoking. There was nothing menacing about the town. If anything, it spelled hope. The buildings were all new and freshly painted sprawling along the Great Northern Railroad. Still, the thought of stepping into that town rippled the hair on the back of Standish's neck. If anyone recognized him....
Excerpted from Outcast by Gary D. Svee. Copyright © 2005 Gary D. Svee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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